YOU CAN COUNT ON ME (2000)

(VOD) YOU CAN COUNT ON ME is one of those early naughts small-scale family-centric indie films that you don’t see much of anymore. Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan (MARGARET, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA), it’s about two middle-aged siblings, Sammy (Laura Linney, LOVE ACTUALLY but I’ll also say: TALES OF THE CITY) and Terry (Mark Ruffalo, I’ll just say BLINDNESS instead of HULK or THE AVENGERS), who have stuck together through thick-and-thin, but Terry is an addict and a bit of a selfihs asshole, and at this point in his life the film focuses on him circling back to needing the emotional and financial support of his sister.

It’s a quaint, heart-felt tale, sparsely told without much in the way of adornment unless you count the East Coast greenery, and worth your time. I wish there was more room for films like these nowadays.

However! YOU CAN COUNT ON ME sticks in my mind because it repeatedly utilizes the prelude in Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major — yes, the video misspells it as C Major, but it’s G Major — building and exposing more of it as the film goes on. It’s an exceptional incorporation of the work into the film, but it has the sad side-effect of reminding me that I completely failed at successfully performing it for my cello teacher for weeks on end, until I finally left for college and quit playing cello all together. (Not Bach or my cello teacher’s fault, obviously! I just didn’t have the chops.)

This is a roundabout way of calling attention to the little weirdsies (as Linda Holmes would say) that we have about artistic works. I can’t watch YOU CAN COUNT ON ME without flashing back to all of my failed attempts at this Bach piece, akin to both Sammy and Terry’s failures and trips during life. I’m sure that Longergan had his reasons for including this work in YOU CAN COUNT ON ME, but all I can hear is a reprise of my teen years.

RELATIVE (2022)

(Theaters) Michael Glover Smith’s RELATIVE is a refreshing throwback family ensemble drama, the kind of indie film that traditionally centers around a homecoming during the holidays or a major family event.

In the case of RELATIVE, the inciting ceremony is a college graduation party for Benji Frank (THE WALKING DEAD’s Cameron Scott Roberts), the youngest child of four who is described as a late-in-life miracle baby by his aged hippie parents, librarian Karen (TWIN PEAKS’ Wendy Robie) and retiree David (grand character actor Francis Guinan).

Living in Karen and David’s basement is their thirty-something asshole son, Rod (Keith D. Gallagher), a veteran recovering from both PTSD and a four-year-old breakup.

Rounding out the family is Evonne (Clare Cooney) whose marriage and mental state appears to be strained, and Norma (Emily Lape, MERCY’S GIRL), who presents a cool, calm, and collected veneer to her family that all is well in her world, but that she pines for older times.

What follows isn’t as conflict-driven as you may think, but there is tension in the air as all of the characters find themselves at their own crossroads, exploring life-changing decisions all while under the comforting roof of the family home.

Smith is known for his paeans to Chicago and RELATIVE is no exception. It is primarily filmed in the far north regions of Chicago, mostly Rogers Park which happens to be Smith’s neighborhood. Rogers Park also houses RELATIVE’s family abode, and Smith takes great care to gloriously portray its interiors via several long pans, detailing hand-painted landscapes with inventively embedded lighting, all framed by the signature molding of 19th century Chicago.

Oh, and when the characters occasionally escape Rogers Park, they run off to Andersonville’s mainstay gastropub Hopleaf*, or happen to be in the nearby village of Wilmette.

If there’s one qualm I have, it’s that Smith hits a few dialogue refrains harder than I would have liked. There’s a repeated bit about ‘choosing soup’ that is clearly meant to be an insightful-but-also-comedic icebreaker, the kind ripped from real life, that left a bad taste in my mouth.

Nonetheless, Smith serves up a quiet, thoughtful depiction of a family, comprised of individuals who miss their old bonds, some who wonder about the unknown, while others are eager to exit. RELATIVE explores these familial bonds with aplomb while respecting the audience by exerting considerable restraint when it comes to revealing certain facets of the characters. While the audience is rewarded as matters wrap, Smith allows for some questions to linger and remain with you long after the film is over.

Trailer (although, if the above sounds appealing to you, skip it!):

  • While I understand the difficulty of finding a unique bar that was also open to allowing a film shoot while COVID reigned, as an Andersonville resident who often frequents Hopleaf, I couldn’t help but flinch while watching Benji eat pizza and drink wine in the venue. You head to Hopleaf for the mussels or, if you tire of those then a hot sandwich, and you wash it down with an eclectic Belgium draft beer.

MARY JANE’S NOT A VIRGIN ANYMORE (1998)

(Arrow/tubi) If you live in Chicago, you may have heard that streaming service MUBI has teamed up with local arthouse favorite the Music Box Theatre for an event they’re calling ‘Back on the Big Screen’, which has two themes: the first week of screenings will consist of big screen epics, while the second week is centered around films about the filmgoing experience.

It’s a phenomenal list of films, including RAN, DAYS OF HEAVEN, TOUCH OF EVIL, PLAYTIME, MATINEE, THE TINGLER, SUSPERIA, which will feel like I’m attending a mini-TCM Fest in Chicago. However, I was absolutely shocked that one of the included films is the indie punk cult classic MARY JANE’S NOT A VIRGIN ANYMORE.

MARY JANE’S NOT A VIRGIN ANYMORE is an audaciously raw low-budget film from Sarah Jacobson about being a young woman, about losing one’s virginity and sex, and about working in a low-rent theater. It’s extremely honest, but often flip about it; proper punk. If you had told me last year that a well-funded streaming service would pay to screen this at the Music Box, I would have laughed at your Zoom image, but this is 2021 and I find it glorious that it’s one of the ways folks are trying to entice people back into theaters.

If you live in or around Chicago, the ‘Back on the Big Screen’ schedule is available here.

If you don’t live near Chicago, you can still stream it through one of the services listed above!

FISHING WITH JOHN (1991)

(DVD/YouTube) A quintessential 90s oddity, this was a six-episode show that aired on IFC and Bravo (back in the day when Bravo aired foreign films and ballet), and featured John Lurie heading out on a fishing trip with a famous friend each episode, such as Tom Waits or Dennis Hopper. Whether they caught anything was beside the point — well, perhaps except for the shark expedition with Jim Jarmusch.

Incredibly low budget with high travel aspirations, this was a bizarrely pioneering show that blurred the lines between reality, scripted comedy, and absurdity. A prototypical -adult swim- show, if you will. For those that witnessed this on their CRTs in the 90s, it was a strange, downbeat revelation.

I have high hopes that his new series, PAINTING WITH JOHN — which hits HBO MAX on January 22nd and feels like the flip side of a JOE PERA TALKS WITH YOU coin — will improve on the formula.

PAINTING WITH JOHN trailer:

FISHING WITH JOHN (video playlist):

BLISS (2019)

(AMC+/Shudder/VOD) There’s not a lot to BLISS — it’s a horror-fueled drug trip that comes at you like a car crash — but the best moments flash before your eyes right before you’re hit, and I’m not about to spoil ‘em.

Visually compelling (although rarely astounding), Dora Madison (who never quite got to shine on FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS) fuels the film, playing with crazed-but-grounded intensity, and George Wendt inserts himself into the film because he apparently loves horror and throws himself into his role.

JUBILEE (1978)

(HBO MAX/Criterion) Scrappy, queer, surprisingly melancholy British alt-timeline art-punk film from Derek Jarman, featuring a rather disconnected Adam Ant. “As long as the music’s loud enough, we won’t hear the world falling apart!”

Please note: the following trailer is NSFW.

PRINCESS CYD (2017)

(Hulu/kanopy/mubi/tubi/VOD) Absolutely charming ‘summer of self-discovery’ film about a teen visiting her writer aunt in Ravenswood, Chicago. As I lived in Ravenswood for several years (and currently live adjacent to the neighborhood) I recognized -every single location- in the film, even down to the church the aunt attends, which means that the film’s home field advantage may unfairly tilt my critical scales, but it really is an extraordinarily delightful film. Pairs well with Showtime’s WORK IN PROGRESS.

(Warning: the trailer is less of a trailer and more of a highlight reel, so you may want to avoid it.)